"Thought" verbs and why they're evil

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  1. #1

    "Thought" verbs and why they're evil

    I came across an article by Chuck Palahniuk. He makes some great points about “thought” verbs and how to get rid of them. Believe me, this is much harder than you’d think. The next time you write, you very well might be pulling your hair out . . . and hating me for making you think like this. Here goes . . .

    From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

    The list should also include: Loves and Hates.

    And it should include: Is and Has, but we’ll get to those, later.

    Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write: Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”

    Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like: “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”

    Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a characterwanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.

    Instead of saying: “Adam knew Gwen liked him.”

    You’ll have to say: “Between classes, Gwen was always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it. She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume. The combination lock would still be warm from her ass. And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”

    In short, no more short-cuts. Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.

    Typically, writers use these “thought” verbs at the beginning of a paragraph (In this form, you can call them “Thesis Statements” and I’ll rail against those, later) In a way, they state the intention of the paragraph. And what follows, illustrates them.

    For example:
    “Brenda knew she’d never make the deadline. Traffic was backed up from the bridge, past the first eight or nine exits. Her cell phone battery was dead. At home, the dogs would need to go out, or there would be a mess to clean up. Plus, she’d promised to water the plants for her neighbor…”

    Do you see how the opening “thesis statement” steals the thunder of what follows? Don’t do it.

    If nothing else, cut the opening sentence and place it after all the others. Better yet, transplant it and change it to: Brenda would never make the deadline.

    Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating.

    Oh, and you can just forget about using the verbs forget and remember.

    No more transitions such as: “Wanda remember how Nelson used to brush her hair.”
    Instead: “Back in their sophomore year, Nelson used to brush her hair with smooth, long strokes of his hand.”

    Again, Un-pack. Don’t take short-cuts.

    And while you’re avoiding “thought” verbs, be very wary about using the bland verbs “is” and “have.”

    For example:
    “Ann’s eyes are blue.”
    “Ann has blue eyes.”

    Versus:
    “Ann coughed and waved one hand past her face, clearing the cigarette smoke from her eyes, blue eyes, before she smiled…”

    Instead of bland “is” and “has” statements, try burying your details of what a character has or is, in actions or gestures. At its most basic, this is showing your story instead of telling it.

    And forever after, once you’ve learned to Un-pack your characters, you’ll hate the lazy writer who settles for: “Jim sat beside the telephone, wondering why Amanda didn’t call.”

    Please. For now, hate me all you want, but don’t use “thought” verbs. After Christmas, go crazy, but I’d bet money you won’t.

    (Chuck Palahniuk, Nuts and Bolts: "Thought" verbs, 2013)
    Serious writers write, inspired or not.
    Over time they discover that routine
    is a better friend than inspiration.

    --Ralph Keyes

  2. #2
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    Quote Originally Posted by squidtender View Post
    The next time you write, you very well might be pulling your hair out . . . and hating me for making you think like this.
    No I won't. Those are all perfectly good words that have a place in writing fiction. I'm not going to take them out of my tool box because someone says they're "evil." These kinds of bogus restrictions and pseudo-rules make me nauseous.
    Last edited by Myers; September 10th, 2013 at 02:08 AM.

  3. #3
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    I'd say minimize the use of them, but when you use them, it had better be for a good reason.

  4. #4

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by Robert_S View Post
    I'd say minimize the use of them, but when you use them, it had better be for a good reason.
    I'll use them whenever and however I please. And I'll decide if my reasons are good or not.

  6. #6
    This smacks of one of those pseudo-rules that shouldn't really be heeded. Yes, being able to describe blue eyes like that is good, but you sacrifice expediency for an unimportant detail. It can work, sure, but it's no better or worse than any other way of writing.

    Self-gratifying nonsense.

    Maybe I can say that because I'm not exactly a statement after statement kind of writer, but I still think it's ridiculous.
    I have an extensive knowledge of Mean Girls quotes.

  7. #7
    These kinds of bogus restrictions and pseudo-rules make me nauseous.
    And make Palahniuk such an infamous darling!
    A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking. Steven Wright

  8. #8
    Wow, I expected a discussion about this, but not outright violence!
    Serious writers write, inspired or not.
    Over time they discover that routine
    is a better friend than inspiration.

    --Ralph Keyes

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by squidtender View Post
    Wow, I expected a discussion about this, but not outright violence!
    Thing is, Randy, it's just yet another, more specific, reiteration of 'show don't tell': a writing canard I find of dubious value in the first place, since so many of my personal heroes have ignored it with impunity.

    I like writing that deals with abstracts, and I like to write about abstracts. His statement that writing will always be stronger by eliminating abstracts is, quite frankly, just his opinion. And I don't agree with it.

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by squidtender View Post
    Wow, I expected a discussion about this, but not outright violence!
    I think it's a pretty fair response.

    He's basically dismissing an effective part of writing without any evidence as to why.

    There's a difference between getting someone to do something like this as a writing exercise and proclaiming that it is something that should​ be done.
    I have an extensive knowledge of Mean Girls quotes.

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